Why the Israeli Air Force Won’t Win
Despite thousands of air strikes, Israel can’t destroy Hamas
The Israeli air force has shown the world what it’s capable of during the past two weeks.
But everyone is also getting a look at the limitations of Israeli air power, which will ensure that Israel will come out of this war only securing limited objectives. Worse, the high civilian death toll and the inability to fully destroy Hamas’s rockets will mean this war will likely resume in the future.
First, here’s a startling number.
Since Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza on July 17, it’s struck more than 2,400 ground targets. Israel has ceased its bombing for a 24-hour ceasefire—previously pausing for several humanitarian cease-fires—as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles to secure a longer pause in the fighting. Israeli ground troops are up to a kilometer inside Gaza on the hunt for tunnel networks leading from the territory into Israel.
That’s a lot of air power in two weeks. Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter-bombers are in action, along with AH-64 attack helicopters. These are likewise supported by orbiting Heron 1 drones and Beech Bonanza spotter planes, which assist ground troops and feed data back to strike planes.
Israel relies heavily on air power for several reasons. It’s often said Israeli society is more sensitive to casualties than other states due to the country’s small population. Bombing from the air carries risks, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as even a limited ground war.
To put it in perspective, in more than one week of ground fighting, Hamas has killed at least 35 Israeli troops as of July 25—more than double the toll during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009. That’s nowhere near the more than 940 Palestinians killed, but it’s a large number for casualty-averse Israel, and Hamas knows it.
Israel also lacks strategic depth, which air power is a means to theoretically overcome.
Strategic depth is a military term referring to the territorial space between the front lines of a conflict and the center of a nation’s population and economy. By firing rockets into Israel—by threatening lives, property and international air traffic—Hamas is able to carry its war, with limited degrees of effectiveness, into Israel’s population centers.
Israel’s response isn’t new. Decades of Israeli doctrine call for rapid and deep strikes into enemy territory to remove and deter perceived threats owing to the lack of strategic depth. Air strikes aimed at Hamas, its rocket stockpiles and launching sites, are in line with this strategy of carrying the war quickly into enemy territory.
But Hamas is still able to fire rockets well into the war—including towards Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. The extremist group was firing rockets into Israel just before the ceasefire. The group buries its arsenals underground, hides them inside civilian infrastructure and makes them as difficult—and as costly—to target as possible.
Air strikes and high-explosive bombs in densely-populated Gaza have also lead to heavy civilian losses. An Israeli attack knocked out the main power plant in the Strip, creating a humanitarian crisis at Gaza’s overcrowded Shifa Hospital.
Whether Israel is justified or not in attacking Hamas, the choice the Israeli military to rely heavily on air power to achieve its objectives has resulted in disproportionate civilian losses compared to the threat Hamas poses.
But Israel doesn’t have many other options. “With nuclear weapons and carpet-bombing off the table, Israel needs to go in on the ground to achieve its objectives,” Daniel Byman wrote at Foreign Policy. “But ground operations can lead to Israeli casualties that actually undermine its deterrence.”
The result is that either way, Hamas will probably come out of the fight with enough Israeli dead on its hands to claim some kind of victory. Hamas will likely be hurting badly. But Israel’s reliance on air power to destroy Hamas’s rockets will also likely fall short. Without a political solution, the conflict will almost certainly resume again.